Judge resumes stalled Beirut port blast investigation
The judge investigating Beirut’s deadly 2020 port blast resumed his work on Monday after an almost 13-month halt to proceedings.
And Tarek Bitar’s first job was to order the release of five detained suspects: A port maintenance contractor and his Syrian-national employee, one of the port’s directors, Michel Nahoul, former customs chief, Shafik Merhi, and port operations director, Sami Hussein.
At the same time, he charged eight people with “potential intent to kill,” some of the most prominent names including the chiefs of General Security and State Security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, and Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, respectively, and judges Ghassan Khoury, Carla Shawah, and Jad Maalouf.
A judicial source told Arab News that a travel ban would be imposed on those people released without bail and that there would be more releases to follow.
Seventeen people have been charged in connection with the explosion which took place on Aug. 4, 2020, killing more than 300 people and injuring at least 6,500.
Families of blast victims had recently ramped up pressure on the judges of the Supreme Judicial Council not to appoint another judge to decide on the fate of the detained suspects.
Bitar requested from the public prosecution on Monday that the suspects’ release would be implemented and that the defendants would be informed about the decision.
He had previously requested the initiation of legal proceedings against Maalouf and Shawah but the public prosecution had not taken any action against them.
Maalouf allegedly played a key role in allowing the unloading of the ship carrying tons of the ammonium nitrate that eventually exploded, and appointed a judicial guard, while Shawah was accused of failing to act to destroy the hazardous material.
Bitar resumed his investigations from his office at the Justice Palace following months of legal attempts to remove him from the case. But he said the timing was not linked to his recent meeting in Beirut with a French judicial delegation.
Two French nationals were killed in the blast and others were injured.
Bitar told the delegation that his report into the case was already 540 pages long and that he had around 150 pages still to write.
Responding to Bitar’s latest moves, the Lebanese minister of justice in the caretaker government contacted the Supreme Judicial Council questioning legal documentation allowing the judge to resume his work and issues surrounding confidentiality.